Early Literacy Supporting Early Learning: A Summary of Class Presentation August 8, 2016


Linda McDonell
Adjunct Faculty
Vancouver Island University
Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada

Recently, I was honoured with an invitation by Widya Mandela Catholic University Surabaya (WMCUS) to attend the opening week of their new PAUD program. At the beginning of opening day, I spoke to the new PAUD students and guests from the early childhood community about the importance of encouraging development of literacy skills of children in their pre-school years. This article is intended to summarize some of the key information I shared that morning, with you the students of the WMCUS English Department.

What is literacy?
Literacy is defined by the United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials…. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society.” This quotation suggests that being literate is not a small achievement nor is it a simple one. Literacy is also not something that is only learned in the limited confines of the classroom. This is especially true of young children.

Children begin their journey to being literate long before they are developmentally ready for a classroom setting. They begin this journey in the very early days of life – some would argue they begin even before they are born! What we often consider a skill that is taught by teachers, really has its beginning in the arms of loving, attentive, and nurturing parents and other caregivers.


What can we do to encourage literacy development?
When children are very young, we can hold them, talk to them, sing to them, and read to them. Yes “read” even when they are infants. These activities build important connections between sounds, words, sentences and meaning. They also create opportunities to connect with children on many different levels and model for them a love of language, the written and spoken word, and books. As children grow and develop into toddlers and pre-schoolers, they often have group early learning and care experiences that take them outside the home. These experiences can provide many pre-reading and early literacy experiences such as:

  • Positive, rich, inclusive spaces for children with books, puzzles, blocks, creative activities, dramatic play, etc.
  • Caring teachers who talk with children, ask them questions, and answer their questions.
    Caring teachers who listen to children and who show an interest in what they do and what they have to say.
  • Caring teachers who read to children and expose them to the written word through a variety of print materials – books (fiction & non-fiction), magazines, pictures, posters, etc.
  • Caring teachers who encourage children to learn from each other.
  • Caring teachers who use assessment techniques that are strength-based and identify what child can do rather than what they can’t.

All of the learning centres in an early childhood program can support literacy development. Below are a few examples of how activities (even some that don’t appear to have anything to do with reading and writing) can help develop highly skilled readers and writers over time.

Puzzles & manipulative toys:

  • Learn about colour, shape, size.
  • Learn about symbols.
  • Develop eye & hand coordination.
  • Learn to discern differences between things.
  • Practice problem solving.
  • Create & re-create stories.


Dramatic play centres:

  • Children take on different roles & perspectives.
  • Invent complex stories in their play.
  • Strengthen confidence and self esteem.
  • Make friends.
  • Connect their knowledge, skill and experiences to different situations and construct new knowledge from their play and the knowledge & experiences of others.


Sensory experiences:

  • Experience things with all senses – sight, touch, smell.
  • Expand vocabulary.
  • Develop ideas and share them.
  • Hear about others’ stories and perspectives.
  • Learn about turn-taking & patience!


Water, sensing & soothing:

  • Exploring the properties of things.
  • Talking, sharing, investigating.
  • Building vocabulary, expressing oneself.
  • Emotional benefits: helps settle children & provide a soothing break from other activities and frustrations.
  • Cognitive benefits – thinking, solving problems.

Outdoor learning environments:

  • Many rich, diverse sensory experiences.
  • ‘Safe’ risk taking and challenges.
  • Building strength, balance and coordination.
  • Connecting with nature and learning about the natural environment.

Creative art media:

  • Exploring, experimenting with different media (paint brushes, pens, felts, crayons, pencils) creating lines, shapes – scribbling, drawing, and beginning writing.
  • Developing and strengthening eye-hand coordination & fine muscles.
  • Developing memory by creating and recreating lines & shapes.


Eventually children will (most often without help) begin to print letters they are familiar with, print their names, ask questions about letters they recognize in their name and others. With frequent exposure to letters, words, and stories and lots of interesting, good quality writing/drawing tools, children will naturally want to develop skills of independent printing and story writing.

Provide lots of freedom for children to write their own words and do it in their own way – they will need lots of space at first and may not attend to writing in lines or confined space but they will practice, practice, practice – all on their own! With both parents and teachers support and encouragement they will gradually perfect their skills. Children are almost always enthusiastic learners – they continue to learn and progress with very little help but benefit from lots of positive encouragement.

While some children experience learning challenges as they build their literacy skills and later as they begin more formal classroom experiences in reading and writing, for the most part, children pursue learning because they love it and they move to the next skill as they are ready. Giving them time to set their own pace will improve their chances of success. There are times, when children require extra support to overcome their challenges. However, by providing opportunity for young children to pace themselves and to support their new learning as they are ready, we can help them to be more self-confident, determined and successful learners.


In summary, early literacy does not mean early reading. Rather, early literacy experiences provide a foundation on which reading and writing skills are developed. Making sure that children are provided with a rich variety of play opportunities will help them be ready for more formal reading and writing. Most importantly, we need to provide good quality literacy experiences in order to create a foundation on which a love of reading and a life-long enthusiasm for learning can be built.